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Crackdown reduces FMLA abuse, absenteeism and overtime at 911 center

Chicago's 911 emergency call center, 1411 W. Madison St.

The 911 emergency call center is at 1411 W. Madison St. The city's inspector general last year found what he calls a pattern of abuse of the Family and Medical Leave Act by employees of Chicago's Office of Emergency Management Communications. But a crackdown since then has helped, a city official told aldermen on Wednesday. | Sun-Times file photo

Absenteeism, overtime and abuse of the Family and Medical Leave Act are way down at Chicago’s 911 emergency center, thanks to a crackdown on abuses uncovered by Inspector General Joe Ferguson.

Testifying Wednesday at Chicago City Council budget hearings, Alicia Tate-Nadeau, executive director of the Office of Emergency Management and Communications, proudly reported she has reduced FMLA use by “approximately 4,000 hours, reduced absenteeism by over 900 shifts and will have reduced our overtime [by] $800,000 by year end.”

That’s a big turnaround from two years ago, when Tate-Nadeau blamed runaway overtime for the fact that 49 percent of the 911 center’s call takers were on “some type of” absence tied to the federal leave law.

Downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) called the crackdown “very impressive” and asked precisely how “those great results” were achieved.

Tate-Nadeau talked about the “FMLA committees” and “review processes” she has created to devise solutions, keep tabs on employees and encourage supervisors to ask questions without fear.

“I brought in all of my managers and gave them training on what FMLA is. What questions they can and cannot ask. A lot of people hear those words, and they’re afraid to do anything. They think there’s nothing they can do,” she said.

“We’ve instituted a systematic review to … identify trends. Once we see a trend, we sit down with the employee and let them know we’re seeing a trend. Is there something behind that? We like to look at our employees holistically — not just the time they’re at work. Maybe there’s something that causes that trend. And where we see clear cases of abuses, we are recommending them to be fired and put on the do-not-hire list. I have four such individuals.”

Chicago Sun-Times over the years has covered burgeoning overtime at the 911 center caused by a chronic staffing shortage. It’s prompted a handful of call-takers to more than double their salaries in overtime.

RELATED: Inspector general uncovers family leave abuse at 911 call center

Tate-Nadeau acknowledged it’s taken longer than she expected to get a handle on runaway overtime.

“This is about changing a culture. OEMC is a good organization that we’re in the midst of making great. To change a culture means that you have to have your employees embrace the change,” she said.

FMLA entitles eligible employees to take unpaid, job-protected leave amounting to 12 work weeks in a 12-month period for specified family and medical reasons.

Eligible reasons include the birth of and care for the newborn child within one year of birth; adoption or foster care of a child within one year of placement; care of a spouse, child or parent with a serious health condition; or the employee’s own serious health condition.

Employees can also qualify for circumstances stemming from the military service of a spouse, son, daughter or parent. Covered employees may also qualify for 26 work weeks of leave during a single 12-month period to care for a member of the military who happens to be the employee’s spouse, son, daughter, parent or next of kin.

Last year, Inspector General Ferguson uncovered what he called a “pattern suggestive of potential abuse” of FMLA at the 911 center.

The pattern included “frequent use of FMLA leave on Fridays and Saturdays, as well as around major holidays or sporting events,” he said.

The rigorous review process that produced the results reported Oct. 24 were triggered by those findings.

Shortly after that, two influential aldermen proposed a more generous family leave policy that would allow Chicago’s 3,182 non-union employees to get up to 12 weeks of paid maternity leave and up to four weeks of paid parental leave for the birth or adoption of a child.

That change is still pending, according to chief sponsor Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th), chairman of the City Council’s Committee on Workforce Development and Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s floor leader.

For years, City Hall had no maternity policy for its employees. Instead, pregnant women had to store up unused sick days, vacation days and unpaid family leave, then rush back to work.

When Emanuel took office, one of the first things he did was order a review of employee leave policies with an eye toward offering paid maternity leave; 10,767 women were then on the city payroll.

The resolution O’Connor and Ald. Margaret Laurino (39th) introduced is more generous than the four weeks of maternity leave for regular deliveries and six weeks for cesarean sections offered by the mayor.

Asked then about the abuses uncovered at the 911 center, O’Connor said: “There’s a difference between FMLA and having a baby. It’s tough to fake having a baby.”